This month’s interview is with Heinz Frischengruber of Domaine Wachau in Austria. Frischengruber grew up at his family’s winery in the Wachau then went on to study viticulture in LFZ Klosterneuburg College, Austria, Geisenheim University, Germany focusing on oenology and beverage technology, and FH Burgenland University of Applied Sciences studying international wine marketing. He has extensive international experience working in Austria, Germany, South Africa and California. For the past 10 years he has been at Domäne Wachau in Dürnstein as the Chief Winemaker.
NC: How did you first become interested in wine? Did the profession run in your family or were you inspired to follow your own path to the wine industry?
HF: I was born and raised at a Wachau winery. Even as a kid, I would often spend my afternoons helping my parents in the vineyards while my peers were off playing football. From that it’s quite surprising that at the age of 15, I decided to study at the Klosterneuburg college of viticulture which turned out to be just right for me- it turned into a real passion and never had a single doubt again that the wine business was where I wanted to be.
NC: When you were starting down the path of winemaking was there a single person who you felt was an important inspiration for your style or did you pull from multiple sources?
HF: Beyers Truter from South Africa and Wolfgang Pfeiffer from Geisenheim most probably. These two guys were a true inspiration for me- not so much when it comes to the style of wine I make today but very general on how great wine is made. Beyers was a true believer in loyalty and continuity, he getting to know your terroir was a lifetime job. If you want to make great wine, you have to know every aspect involved in it, the tiny details as well as the big piture. If you wander from one winery to the next to make wine you are missing out on that experience. Wolfgang taught me to break down scientific facts to an applicable basis for my everyday work and to use a very holistic approach in what I do. My wine style itself is not inspired by a single person, it’s inspired by the wines‘ origin.
NC: What do you feel is the most distinguishing feature of the Wachau’s vineyards?
HF: Wachau yields some of the world’smost characterful wines, very puristic, offering lots of drinking pleasure. Still fascinating for me is the Wachau’s diversity, the different single-vineyards and the wines the produce depending on their specific soils and microclimates. Making wine in the Wachau is ever so simple- you have the terroir, you have the best grapes one can wish for and the rest is really just preservation of what’s already there.
NC: Domaine Wachau is one of the largest wineries in Austria. How do you maintain quality year over year?
HF: To me, it doesn’t matter if a winery is big or small. As long as you know what you’re doing, as long as you are good at your job, size does not matter. I see it as a big asset that we have 250 passionate, experienced and diligent winegrowers to support us and who do a great job in the vineyards for us. And of course it’s the Wachau, the terroir, the social and cultural roots we all have here that enable us make great wine.
NC: In relation to quality improvement programs in the vineyards, what did you see was missing when you began your quest for improvement? What actions did you take to make changes and are you seeing good results from those actions?
HF: When I first took over, there was plenty of work to do in the cellar but this is something that can happen quite quickly if you are determined to get it done. At the same time, we started looking at the vineyards, we wanted to continuously improve the grape quality and this is what really takes time.
Our viticulture on the steep vineyard terraces of the Wachau is very cost intensive, therefore we see it as our responsibility to make the most of the grapes we get (both in terms of quality but also regarding the financial reward for our growers).
The improvements in grape quality must be something people can taste- improved origin character, getting the essence of the single-vineyard into the bottle is what it’s all about.
With every year and vintage that passed by we gained experience, we became more confident and we took more risk. We could draw from our experience and make better decisions. For me, the most important factors to make decisions regarding harvest time and winemaking is what I can actually see and taste in the vineyard during the year: weather during the vegetation period plays an important role and so does the specific vineyard the grapes grow in. All this information gives you important clues on when to pick the grapes and how to treat them in the cellar.
Important are healthy and vital soils, we want no herbicides or pesticides in our vineyards as they destroy the beneficial organisms in the vineyard. Very few other winegrowing regions in the world have a similar biodiversity as the Wachau with its fascinating flora and fauna.
What we still have to learn is to see and watch and interpret. Indicator plants, physique of the vine etc. are things we have to start seeing as a whole. From what I have learned so far, this will need a lifetime experience. The past 10 years have only shown me that I am only just starting to understand the Wachau.
NC: Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again?
HF: 2007 and 2013 were fantastic, I personally love these vintages. 2014 helped me stretch my horizon, I learned a lot from this vintage (even though it made my hair turn even more grey…)
NC: During your travels in your early career, did you ever find a spot where you would choose to make wine again if you couldn’t make wine in Austria?
HF: There are a lot of fantastic places in the world, like Mosel, Burgundy, and Piedmont. I was always a big fan of South Africa as well, it’s a wonderful country. But when I really think about alternatives, I don’t think there could be any for me. I was born in the Wachau and even though I have seen a bit of the world I still feel that there’s so much left to learn about the Wachau and its terroir and all the single-vineyards that it will easily keep me occupied for the next 20 years. And then I’m probably too old to start somewhere new…
NC: What was one of the most memorable winemaking mistakes you ever made that you still think about to this day?
HF: Hard to say! I have a distant memory of a red wine pump-over into a Chardonnay tank during my first internship…. J I think what I had to learn over the years was to be more relaxed, listen to my gut feeling, especially when it comes to harvesting times and decisions involved. I had to learn to take more risk and stay calm at the same time.
NC: If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable piece of knowledge or experience that you pass on?
HF: It’s all about passion! Und cool bleiben (And stay cool)!
NC: Can you describe your philosophy on winemaking in haiku?
HF: Herbstnebelschleier (Veils of Autumn Fog)
Nasse Kälte weicht (Wet Cold Makes Way for)
Goldene Sonne (Golden Sun)
(sorry but if you’re asking for Haiku, you have to take it in German 😉
NC: Are you working on any exciting projects now that you would like to share?
HF: We have been working on different exciting projects over last years. It helps is to learn and gain more experience. We make a fantastic Rosé Reserve in a style that’s rather unusual for Austria, we experiment with no- sulfur wines, prolonged skin contact,…. Lots of new things going on in our old cellar.
If you are interested in purchasing some of Heinz’s wines here in the US please visit Vin Divino.
Special Thanks to Anne Krebiehl, MW for the German Translations.
Photo courtesy of Domain Wachau.